Welcome to the blog that's all about me (and that means a lot of NASCAR, college football and more NASCAR)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

To legion of fans Mark Martin as NASCAR Hall of Famer is ultimate prize

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and as a young kid I could count to 99. I was the only child in my preschool class who could count that high, and I owe it all to NASCAR. When I began watching the sport in the early 1990s I would rely on my dad to find the race on TV and we would sit and watch together. My collection of toy cars would come in handy when we would place the winner’s car atop the TV after each race for a day or so to honor them in our own Victory Lane of sorts.

Mark Martin from my interview with him two weeks ago
For some reason as a youngster I began rooting for Mark Martin, the guy driving the Valvoline No. 6 car. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. There’s no fantastic story behind it at all (at least that I can remember). I just pulled for the man from Batesville, Ark.

In 1996 my dad and I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where I finally got to see live NASCAR racing occur for the first time. From that point forward it seems my life has been an unstoppable race of sorts as I’ve grown up and become one of Cincinnati’s leading voices when it comes to NASCAR.

I’ve met so many people who share my passion for NASCAR racing. But the one person I always wanted to meet and always wanted to talk to was Mark Martin. He became my childhood hero of sorts, which was odd only because most boys my age adored baseball players of football stars. No one I knew adored a NASCAR driver.

So, I was a little different, but so too, was Mark Martin.

Last night he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, an honor he has referred to multiple times as “the crown jewel” of his career. He called it the ultimate victory lane when thanking fans, friends, family and all his supporters through his nearly four-decade career in the sport during his induction speech on Friday night in Charlotte.

Martin in 2009 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Role models aren’t always perfect, but they do teach you about life in winning and in losing. Mark Martin might as well have been NASCAR’s most loveable loser. He finished runner-up in the points race five times. He never won the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, despite coming within inches in 2007. He finished second in another of the sport’s most prestigious races, the Brickyard 400, twice, losing to Jeff Gordon in 1998 and Jimmie Johnson in 2009.

Through all those seeming disappointments though, Mark Martin remained humble and upbeat. When he got out of his car after finishing second in the Daytona 500 under a controversial finish Martin didn’t beat up NASCAR officials or complain. He thanked his crew for giving him a car that was fast enough to finish second.

Mark Martin taught me about losing with class, and how to carry yourself with honor. Mark Martin taught me that you don’t always have to win a championship to be remembered as one of the best. Mark Martin taught me that friends and relationships create the best trophy case of all, not wins and losses.

Look, my life hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t been hard either by any stretch of the imagination, but it is never easy. When I was growing up the sports teams I played on were awful for the most part. But the guys and girls I played soccer, baseball, basketball and volleyball with all played our hearts out because we had pride in our school or in our team. We wanted to win every time we played better opponents.

In that same vein, Mark Martin would compete with the biggest and the best, some times when he had no shot, and he gave it his all. Dale Earnhardt Jr. commented in Martin’s introduction video that while Martin was never flashy, he was fast.

He was usually fast on Saturdays when the NASCAR Busch Series (now Xfinity Series) would race. Mark would jump in that black No. 60 car, outlined in yellow trim and Winn Dixie logos, and torch the field. Growing up Winn Dixie didn’t exist in Cincinnati, but sister chain Thriftway did, and they sold Chek Cola, a minor sponsor on the No. 60 car.

I still have a can of Chek Cola with Mark Martin on the side. It sits in my NASCAR display which will soon rest in my new home’s basement with all my other NASCAR memorabilia. I have so many Mark Martin diecast cars and collectables from my years growing up. I own Mark Martin shirts, hats, a pair of shorts and even a Mark Martin cellphone case. I grew up wearing red, white and blue No. 6 hats, transitioned into being an adolescent boy wearing Viagra-sponsored shirts and hats before Mark Martin would down his career in the No. 6 at Roush Racing.

Me in a Viagra shirt at Indy in 2003
I built an almost exact replica of the No. 6 Viagra Ford as my Cub Scout pinewood derby car one year (this is a hilarious story because it offended some parents who apparently didn’t understand how to explain what Viagra was to their young son without being able to say it’s a sponsor on a racecar and leave it at that, but that’s another story for another time). When I got into high school I began buying Mark Martin Army shirts and hats, and when I got to college Mark Martin joined Hendrick Motorsports. I still have some Kellogg’s diecasts and shirts too.

A small look at my collection of Mark Martin "stuff"
I was a loyal fan, but perhaps not as loyal as the online group of fans I found one year. I was able to join their ranks on their message boards and chat with them about their love of Mark Martin for years. We would gather on raceday and talk about how well or porrly Mark was doing. We gathered in friendship, as a family of sorts, and learned about each other’s lives. We dotted the map of the U.S. but we were able to communicate a love and passion for our favorite driver as we sought to support him in any way possible.

We now have a special Facebook group where we share links about Mark Martin and NASCAR racing. Some of the members of the group were able to score tickets to the induction dinner and ceremony last night. We tweet and Facebook message each other on birthdays and stay in touch when we can.

Mark Martin was more than a hero to me. He was a role model and hero to them too, and it’s been fun to remain in touch with some of the members of the message boards even after our favorite man stopped racing.

As Mark Martin began to step away from NASCAR racing folks would ask me how I would move on in the sport. Do I have a new favorite driver? Would I pick a new guy or a new team to begin rooting for?

Martin from 2011 at Indy
The answers are simple: No, I don’t have a new favorite driver. I was asked on Friday afternoon by a member of the football staff here at UC who my favorite driver is and I said, without hesitation, “Mark Martin, soon-to-be NASCAR Hall of Famer.”

Me chatting with Mark Martin
I travel to a few races a year as I report on NASCAR for Cincinnati’s FOX19. It’s an awesome job I never dreamed I would have. It has allowed me to visit with Mark Martin on several occasions, most recently two weeks ago in downtown Cincinnati. Along with photographer Will Hearne—another lifelong Mark Martin fan—we set out to talk to Mark and after the interview thank him for representing us, lifelong Mark Martin fans, on his journey to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Years ago I never thought I would ever get to talk to Mark Martin, but always envisioned what I would do if I ever did. I’ve spoken to him in interview contexts for a number of years now at Indianapolis and Kentucky Speedway, and each time I remind him that while I may be carrying a camera and interviewing him to tell his story, deep down inside I am first and foremost a lifelong Mark Martin fan, and always will be.

For all of you out there that feel the same way, I hope you can join me in thanking Mark Martin for representing us, and himself, with the utmost class. To see a man we have rooted for and cheered for make the ultimate step into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is a moment I won’t soon forget.

The race wins may fade. The fact that he never won a title will be quelled by this awesome achievement, and a man I considered a hero and a role model will finally be recognized as something other than “former NASCAR driver” when he gets introduced to crowds.

Mark Martin and Dr. Jerry Punch at Kentucky in 2011
I always dreamed I would see Mark Martin win a race in person, and I hoped it would be the Brickyard 400. That never happened, but I did see Mark win the 1998 IROC at Indy in person. I wish I could remember more about the day, but I vaguely remember being a 9-year-old boy holding back tears of joy in the stands as Mark Martin finished first in an awesome 40-lap race.

It’s hard not to hold back emotions when you see something like we saw last night in Charlotte too, a fitting cap to a true hall of fame career.

Mark  Martin said he never imagined seeing his name next to his heroes like Richard Petty—his childhood hero—in the NASCAR Hall of  Fame. Well, now, we can say we see the name of our hero, Mark  Martin, in the NASCAR Hall of  Famer forever.

Hero. Icon. Legend. Class-act. And Hall of Famer. Congratulations Mark Martin. You earned this distinction, and you deserve it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hall of Famer Martin says NASCAR’s future “in good hands”

Me talking with Mark Martin about NASCAR's future

Mark Martin is going to have his name etched into NASCAR lore this weekend as he joins the newest class of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, but his recent retirement from the sport three years ago doesn’t mean he’s stopped following from a distance. Martin raced for over 30 years in NASCAR’s highest series earning 40 checkered flags in the Cup Series. He raced against legends like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr., but also saw many newcomers in his time like the now retired pair of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. When Martin turns on the TV during the weekend to follow the sport as most fans do, he’s intrigued by what he sees.

“[NASCAR] is in very good hands with these young drivers,” Martin told me two weeks ago during an interview in Cincinnati. “They’ve got some tremendous talent.”

Elliott at Kentucky Speedway in 2016
Martin drove for several owners during his time in the Cup Series including fellow Hall of Fame classmate Rick Hendrick. Hendrick’s stable includes one of NASCAR’s youngest stars, Chase Elliott, whom Martin knows well since he raced with Elliott’s dad, Bill, during their time in the sport together.

“Chase Elliott is going to be just as awesome as “Awesome Bill” and I really love watching Kyle Larson. I haven't seen anyone ever be able to put the car up against the wall like he does in and pull speed out of it like he does. He’s an amazing talent.”

Martin made his name running ASA races and was a force in NASCAR’s second-tier series, then called the Busch Series (now Xfinity Series), as he made runs for Cup titles as well. Martin knows that fans can look toward a bright future for all of NASCAR as young stars make their way through the levels of NASCAR toward the top echelon of the sport.

“There's some young guys that haven't quite broken into the NASCAR's top level yet that are going to be amazing as well,” he said. “The sport is full of really great talented young drivers and it's exciting to watch them. I don't go to the races very much anymore but I'm a big fan. I don't miss them [on TV].”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Martin on the Brickyard: A cool place to race

A group of nine NASCAR drivers descended on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1992 for a Goodyear tire test at the facility most widely known for its open-wheel racing. Mark Martin was one of the nine drivers involved that day as NASCAR and Goodyear executives watched some of stock car racing’s best turn laps at the famed facility in Speedway, Ind.

Two years later NASCAR’s first foray into racing at Indy, the Brickyard 400, began, and it’s a tradition Martin, who will be enshrined in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame next weekend in Charlotte, called “incredible.”

Martin in his car at Indianapolis in 2012
“It turned out to be one of my favorite races not because it was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but because it was a very, very cool race,” he said during an exclusive interview with me at Cincinnati’s Cavalcade of Customs car show in downtown Cincinnati in early January. Martin, who began his career running American Speed Association (ASA) races in small markets across the Midwest, never figured he would ever run a race at the world-famous track in Indianapolis, yet the growth of auto racing in his career amazed him.

“It’s really awesome the growth that we got to see,” he said. “You know when I started racing, to me, it was big-time racing when I was racing ASA up in the Midwest and we’d race here at a race track, Queen City Speedway, that was huge to me at the time. We ran some pit stop races, some 300-lap races and stuff like that here and then to move on up into NASCAR and then have NASCAR expand into Indianapolis Motor Speedway was so incredible.”

Martin never won in NASCAR’s Cup Series at the track in what has become one of the sport’s iconic races. He finished runner-up twice in the Brickyard 400 in 1998 and in 2009, and despite the track’s public reputation for putting on lackluster racing, the newest member of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame feels the racing at Indy has been good in recent years.

After they ground the race track I feel like it puts on a good show for stock car racing and so for the past nearly 10 years it’s been really good racing for NASCAR there in my opinion,” Martin told me. “We had some really good runs.”

Martin after winning the pole in 2009 at Indy
Jimmie Johnson beat Martin to the checkers in 2009 in a race Martin dubbed his then-teammate Johnson “Superman.” Martin told me, “We just we came up short of winning the race there in ’09 by just one restart. I sat on pole there I think more than more than once which was very exciting.” He was right, Martin also won the pole for that event in 2009 becoming the oldest pole winner at the track at that time.That’s an exciting lap to make around there in a stock car because you’re not flat out you know you got to back her up for the corners just a little bit so my hands shook a bit after those laps but it's pretty cool to race there,” he commented.

While Martin never got to kiss the bricks—a tradition started in 1996 when Dale Jarrett won the race for the first time (Martin finished fourth that day)—he did visit Victory Lane at Indy more than once in the International Race of Champions (IROC) Series.

1998 IROC cars at Indy
In 1998 the IROC Series ran the inaugural “IROC at Indy” race, the fourth and final race on the schedule for the series made up of a dozen of the best drivers in all of American motorsports. Martin came into that race as the points leader, and by rule, had to start shotgun on the field. Driving an aqua-colored car with a number one on the side Martin casually made his way through the field in the 40-lap event, passing Jimmy Vasser with five laps to go and winning the race, and the IROC title, on that day.

The trophy from that win is in Martin’s trophy case at his museum, and before the new year Martin was working on his trophy case when he spotted that trophy. “I was working on some lightbulbs that were out in the trophy cases at the museum and I noticed I saw the Indy IROC trophy. I noticed that and then my eyes caught another one just like it and then my eyes about another one just like it, so I thought, ‘What, do I have duplicates?’” he said. “Then I got to looking closer and it was ’98, ’99 and 2000. I didn't even remember winning three years in a row in the IROC series there.

“That's pretty amazing. I don't know how that happened.”

Martin won the first three IROC races at Indianapolis before the series eventually went defunct in the mid 2000s. Martin won five IROC titles in his career, one of his greatest accomplishments before he was selected to join NASCAR’s immortality next weekend. “All I know is every time I got an IROC car they were supposed to be equal cars and almost every time I got in them my car was faster than everybody elses,” he said with a chuckle.

Despite never being a winner at Indy in NASCAR’s top series, Martin’s ability to run races at Indianapolis and be a part of NASCAR’s history at the track was something that he never truly dreamed he would be a part of. Winning three-consecutive races at the track is something he has mentioned in multiple interviews as a very cool accomplishment. Something else that is cool to him is racing at Indy, no matter the outcome.